• The international development community needs to shift its approach from intervening to solve problems to developing local leadership;
  • People in developing contexts should be encouraged and given the skills to define their own challenges and identify solutions;
  • The experiences of Teach For America and Teach For All offer ideas for how to make this change.

It is high time for international development actors to shift their approach from defining problems and identifying interventions towards developing the agency and leadership of people in developing contexts. Such a change enables affected communities to define their own problems, identify solutions and continuously improve over time.

This change feels more necessary than ever in the midst of calls to fight systemic oppression by elevating the leadership of those in marginalized communities and at a time when economic, education and health resilience in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic will depend on local leadership.

For decades, development actors have embraced the importance of locally led development for sustainable outcomes, but we haven’t made the requisite investments in the development of ourselves and people in developing contexts to realize this imperative. Making this shift will require analysis of our unconscious biases regarding the potential of people in developing contexts to drive their own progress. We will need to dismantle the systemic barriers our assumptions, power and privilege have generated, which hold people in marginalized contexts back from exerting their agency and leadership.

We will need to invest in developing local leadership — investments that have, for far too long, been reserved for the elite in wealthier countries and contexts. A growing global community of practitioners, donors and academics are committed to evolving our practice towards this "people-first" approach.

Thirty years of building Teach For America and Teach For All, a network of independent, locally-led organizations in 60 countries, have fuelled my own conviction in the importance of intentional investments in the development of local leadership. Take Teach For America’s experience in Washington, D.C. About 15 years ago, as I worked to raise funds from the city’s civic leaders, I heard their exhaustion: “We’ve tried everything and nothing is going to change the Washington, D.C., public schools.” Despite intervention after intervention, the city was stagnant at the bottom of the rankings of all the US’ major urban school districts; today, it’s the fastest-improving urban district in the country.

What changed? One significant factor was the effort Teach For America made to grow local leadership capacity by recruiting a diverse group of promising leaders to teach and investing in their development. Teach For America alumni led the school system as Chancellors, Deputy Mayors of Education, State Superintendents of Education and the majority of the district cabinet for a decade. They made up 15-20% of the school leaders, hundreds of teachers and most of the Teachers of the Year. They founded and led many of the non-profits influential in supporting this progress, including those working to develop the leadership of students, parents and other teachers.

The benefits of a people-first approach to development
The benefits of a people-first approach to development
Image: Teach For All

What ultimately made the difference in D.C. wasn’t a single leader at the top of a hierarchy; it was “collective leadership” – people exerting leadership and working together in partnership with many others, at every level of the school system, in policy and across the whole system around kids. Now that this approach has been adapted and implemented across the Teach For All network, we’re seeing similar effects in communities and countries across the world. A growing body of research has shown that Teach For All network organizations not only transform teaching participants’ priorities and career trajectories towards education and the social sector, but produce the kinds of leaders we need to transform systems — leaders who have a deep belief in the potential of marginalized students and who understand the inequities they face as a complex problem requiring adaptive, systemic change.

These experiences show that where there is development, there is strong local leadership – and that this collective leadership can be developed and enabled. We need to move from a development model that prioritizes time-bound projects and interventions to deliver short-term outcomes; towards one that prioritizes supporting local people and leaders’ capacity to own solutions, continuously improve, and deliver sustained outcomes.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals
The UN Sustainable Development Goals
Image: UN

Imagine the choices we face in addressing poor agricultural yields and food insecurity, for example. Traditional approaches would determine a modern irrigation system is needed and develop a plan for implementing a new system based on Western standards, providing capacity building on the back-end to prepare local actors to maintain the irrigation system. A people-first approach would establish a programme to help farmers gain exposure to new ideas and potential solutions. It would support their efforts by providing access to peers who are pioneering change in other contexts and through coaching, global knowledge and financial resources.

A people-first approach requires us, first and foremost, to develop ourselves. All of us in the development space need to build consciousness of our own biases and privilege and how these have informed our ideas about where leadership needs to come from. We need to support and challenge each other to reduce the systemic barriers that block people in developing contexts from exerting their leadership and to implement equitable systems that enable them to fulfil their potential as change agents.

A people-first approach also requires growing and improving initiatives that foster agency and leadership. These can be efforts to encourage problem-solving in one’s own life, like the Community Independence Initiative, or efforts to build pipelines of leaders, such as Emerging Public Leaders, Global Health Corps, and the African Leadership Academy. Other efforts, such as Building State Capability and AMP Health, focus on skills including negotiation, adaptive management and decision-making among established leaders, while approaches like Synergos foster collective leadership capabilities.

As the development community deliberates its response to the devastating, wide-ranging effects of the pandemic, and engages in the growing movement against white supremacy and other forms of systemic oppression, we have a tremendous opportunity. Through fostering the agency and leadership of people in affected communities and committing ourselves to analysis of the unconscious biases and dismantling the injustices in our own systems, we can respond to the crisis at hand and fortify communities for the unknown challenges ahead.